Courts & Crime

Prom dresses honor memory of teenage girl who killed herself

Marissa McLeod possessed what psychiatrists call "the perfect outer shell."

Great academics, with a 4.29 grade-point average at Ripon High School. An effervescent smile and pure beauty. Tremendous ambition. The desire to help others.

Inside, though, stress and turmoil reigned.

"She wrote poetry, and her poems were always dark," mom Melinda Shaw said. "It was an outlet for expressing her other side."

A side, mom said, that included meltdowns. Marissa panicked when a computer system crashed as she tried to meet a college application deadline. She also worried she didn't speak enough languages or hadn't done enough community service to impress admissions officers at Harvard, Yale, Stanford or Dartmouth -- her top university choices.

On Dec. 1, 2009, it all boiled over. Marissa took her own life, just one month and one day after another Ripon High student took his.

She left behind a large extended family, including Shaw, who never will understand why her daughter chose to die at 17. Shaw, now on medical leave from her job as public relations manager for Santa Clara County Health Services, finds it difficult to get out of bed or leave the house.

But she is determined that Marissa will be remembered for the good she accomplished -- something Shaw needs desperately to help her cope with the devastation of losing her only child.

As a junior, Marissa recognized that many high school girls could not afford the expensive dresses worn at the winter formals and proms. So she began asking friends, relatives and others for new and used dresses.

By March 2009, she'd collected 245 dresses and gowns. She sent fliers and e-mails to friends at other high schools and, one weekend, set up a booth in the parking lot of the Ripon Chamber of Commerce to distribute the dresses.

Shaw decided to perpetuate the dress giveaway in her daughter's honor, fulfilling Marissa's dream of helping other girls experience theirs: looking their best on prom night.

Hence, "Marissa's Closet" was born. Shaw created a nonprofit organization and set a goal of collecting more than 700 dresses to distribute in March -- in time for the spring formals.

With the help of her sister, Christina Trujillo, and other family members, Shaw and others already have collected 154 dresses.

Eleven-year-old Alexis Garcia -- Trujillo's daughter and Marissa's cousin -- is a fifth-grader at University Charter School in Modesto. She is required to take on a school project that involves either public service or personal enrichment.

She chose to help stock Marissa's Closet, "to collect prom dresses to give to girls who need them to make their prom night special," Alexis said, echoing Marissa's purpose. Alexis has collected dozens of dresses, and has set her sights on gathering 300 by herself.

They will have a booth at the Ripon Almond Blossom Festival on Feb. 26-28, where they can gain exposure for the cause and where donors can drop off dresses.

Family friend Mackenzie Huff of Pleasanton began a Marissa's Closet chapter at Foothill High School there.

"I want to have a chapter in every state," Shaw said.

Shaw also has established a scholarship fund, its treasury to be supplied by direct contributions and from proceeds from a dinner and silent auction event scheduled for April 30. The goal is to provide $500 scholarships to high school seniors who plan to further their educations at community colleges, universities or trade schools.

To do anything less would be, well, very un-Marissa-like, Shaw said.

"Everything she did was big," she said. "I have to remember that when I'm doing this, my daughter always dreamed big and I have to help other girls dream big, too."

Tears welled in Shaw's eyes as she tried in vain to project her own perfect outer shell.

Inside, though, is a mother desperately looking to transform pain into hope by carrying on Marissa's work.

"This," Shaw said, pointing to racks of formal gowns in her living room, "is the only thing I have left to hold of my daughter."

Read the full story and see video at the Modesto Bee.